From Sesame Street to Sense of Wonder: Environmental Education in the Digital Age

St. Olaf College Natural Lands. Image from fusion.stolaf.edu

Around 9 AM this morning I made the walk from St. Olaf College to Greenvale Elementary to tutor 2nd graders for the first time this semester. Approaching the leaf-covered roundabout outside the primary school entrance, I heard the noise made by 10 or so children shouting “row row row your boat” with raspy voices. The students were gathered in a circle with their teacher–engrossed in outdoor learning  games on a beautiful Fall morning. They were all participating.

Inside of the familiar classroom where I’ve worked with 8 and 9 year-olds twice a week for 4 separate seasons, the faces of students in the classroom were new. I watched (making mental notes for names) as the group sat cross-legged with sporadically raised hands. Their teacher sat at the front of their cluster–elevated in her “reading chair.” She turned brightly colored pages depicting various aspects of pond and wetland life. Pointing to a page scattered with mussel shells, she asked the class; “What animal might have been here?” A boy in the back chimed in with “a turtle?” and another tested the waters with his guess of “crow?” The third student had his answer of “otter!” validated with the quick flip of the page. He beamed as he explained; “I knew that they eat clams and mussels.”

Encouraging every guesser as she continued to read, Mrs. D pointed out illustrated tortoises and Blue Herons. She put them all in the context of the St. Olaf Natural Lands–a wetland ecosystem the children would take a miniature field trip to see later in the week. The Garter snake found by one of the characters was a possible find in Northfield, MN, but the Heron was unlikely. The kids shifted to their knees. They couldn’t wait to see it all in real life.

Studying different styles of “environmental education” as part of the work for an independent study in Sustainability Culture, this 2nd grade scene is a wonderful “dense fact.” At the surface level it feels predictable and simplistic–a teacher reading to her class and a field trip to an open environmental space down the road. Zooming in, the implications of these activities extend beyond the ecosystem of the St. Olaf College Natural Lands and the 2012-2013 2nd grade class at Greenvale Elementary.

Discussing education in our hyper-connected culture, the word “entertainment” often takes center stage. Outdoors-oriented lessons like those at Greenvale this morning take a back seat to “internet access for all” and  the need to prepare children for life in a Brave

Amusing Ourselves to Death. Image from new-wood.blogspot.com

New mediated world. Neil Postman, author of the 1985 text Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public discourse in the Age of Show Business, sums up the dilemma of the teacher in the digital age as he states; “Teachers, from primary grades through college, are increasing the visual stimulation of their lessons; are reducing the amount of expositions their students must cope with; are relying less on reading and writing assignments; and are reluctantly concluding that the principle means by which student interest may be engaged is entertainment” (149).

In Postman’s analysis, we see a foreshadowing of Smart Board covered classrooms, standardized tests taken on computer screens, essays written in short paragraph social media style, and the constant battle teachers face to capture  students’ attention in a realm of smartphones, Facebook, and distraction. Showcased in PBS’ documentary Digital NationPostman’s 1985 warning to Americans “who have accorded [technology] their customary mindless inattention; [using] it as they are told without a whimper…creat[ing] as many problems for them as [it] may have solved,” the use of TV, laptops, and PowerPoint presentations in modern classrooms creates a meaningful cultural curriculum.

As a student, I like the in-class documentary and creative online assignment as much as the next college kid. In my K-12 experience I enjoyed computer games that quizzed me on vocabulary and my knowledge of the “home row” keys. As a future parent, I understand the importance of raising my children with digital as well as traditional literacies–working to prepare them for the multi-tasking model of their future careers. All of this said, I fear the loss of the valuable learning that takes place in fields and offline. I worry about the absence of hardcover books and wandering afternoon discovery.

The children of today are “digital natives.” Shielded by loving parents from the dangers of unsupervised land beyond the playground, their understanding of the environment is molded by Sesame Street, recycling competitions, and worksheets about clean energy. They are told about global warming with the visual aid of PowerPoint slides featuring icecap-stranded polar bears. Too often, they don’t get to fully explore the complex ecosystems of their backyards.

In many of today’s American childhoods, schedules are filled with violin lessons, soccer games, tutoring sessions and elite summer camps. In some cases, children are primed for future success even before they leave the womb (lulled by the sound of Mozart pointed toward a mother’s stretched belly skin.)

In 1988, author David Elkind shed light a the trend of American children living scheduled adult lives in his book The Hurried Child. Like Postman, Elkind worried about the excessive presence of media in the lives of children (particularly in the form of TV.) Putting the 1988 classroom environment in conversation with the concurrent media explosion of television, Elkind says; “Schools still see children as empty bottles on an assembly line of grades–each grade fills the bottle up a little more, the bottle representing the child’s memory. What the schools fail to appreciate is that the bottles are already overflowing with information about the present and future that is provided by television” (71).

Is the “bottle” metaphor still the way the education system today operates? Standardized tests seem to measure the line each student’s bottled contents reach. We continue to assess vocabulary and math and reading with numbered lexicon scores. There is value in this. We need to know that each student is progressing and to identify where he or she is specifically having trouble. We need to have some form of measurement to hold schools (and the country’s system) accountable. But are we acknowledging the conflicting messages of media and the hurried skills of multi-tasking? Are we paying enough attention to the way TV and the internet teach kids through the power of advertising and programming how to play and prioritize? What if children were seen not as bottles but as sieves–education tailored to help students shake out the excess material and maintain the meaningful nuggets?

Elkind points out (remember, this is only in 1988) that “The average American child this year will see some 1,000 hours of advertisements promoting war toys and will watch some 250 episodes of war cartoons produced to help sell these toys. This is the equivalent of 22 days a year of classroom instruction in pro-violent behavior” (18). With statistics like these, we see how the curriculum of television competes with the curriculum of the classroom. Though parents are quick to support “educational television” that offers guilt-free entertainment designed to help kids stay on track or “get ahead,” the lessons learned do not stop with ABCs or tricks to learn to read. Programming may teach children about ecosystems and vowels and history and “being green,” but the messages broadcast during commercial breaks include violence, planned obsolescence, excessive consumption, time poverty, and entertainment as a way of life.

In a culture of schedules, time as currency, and information overload that leads to parent anxieties (i.e. Steingraber’s analysis of environmental risks for children in Raising Elijah,) it becomes increasingly difficult for children to simply go out and spend time in the “wild.” Rather than focus on experiential learning, websites are designed to teach kids the names of bird species and the “greenest” forms of transportation from point A to point B. These tools can be incredibly useful, but only when used as a supplement to direct experience with nature in childhood. By “nature,” I do not mean the landscapes of open space and tree-leaf canopies that first come to mind. Nature is everywhere–a walk down a busy urban street can teach children about watershed and land use and ecosystems in amazing ways if framed correctly.

In an anthology of essays titled Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together, the responsibility of parents to expose their children to nature is key. Harnessing the wonder, joy, and curiosity present in every young child, the authors argue for a dismantling of societal barriers to childhood experience in the great outdoors. In the anthology’s introduction, the citizenship skills promoted by childhood experiences with nature is emphasized; “Studies suggest that much as kids need nature, nature needs kids. One U.S. survey found that hiking, camping, and playing in the woods before age eleven had a significant positive effect on attitudes and behaviors in adulthood such as recycling, pro-environment voting, and participation in Earth Day” (8). By allowing children to explore the natural world around them, we not only offer an important sense of place and get them moving (helping to combat larger societal issues like obesity,) we create expectations for their future civic engagement. Learning to care about a physical space from a very personal perspective, they are more likely to protect it as they grow older.

Digesting quotations like these, it’s easy to think “Duh. Of course kids should play outside. This is why we have recess in elementary schools and gym class and play structures in public parks.” To some extent, this is true. However, despite the built-in and very organized experiences schoolchildren have with the environment every day, there are several barriers in place. As cited in Companions in Wonder, these barriers include “children’s routines, family budgets, distance from open space…computer games and other electronics [that] keep kids indoors…lawsuits, [and] urban design” (10). In addition to the modern barriers of hurried and scheduled childhood lifestyles, the geographies of neighborhoods, and the pull of the electric screen, perhaps the largest barrier to the child’s exploratory outdoor play is the parent’s fear (10). Scientific studies list carcinogens covering play structures in bullet points. Children growing up in apartments along busy city streets cannot be let outside to “explore” freely. In fact, the idea of letting a child roam anywhere is disconcerting. Think of the kidnappers and the pedophiles and the stalkers. All of these concerns feel valid–only one small corner of the many anxieties plaguing the 21st century parent. And yet, the fears of candy-lured abuse and “stranger danger” are blown out of proportion by the media we consume. From CSI to Law & Order to the 5:00 news, our screens show us a mean world.

What if we could make the most of our children’s curiosities by exploring the world together–bridging our need to protect with their innate desire to roam? What if we spent Sunday mornings walking together and pointing to drops of dew and the funky looking insects of early Spring? What if we chose to prioritize a sense of wonder over a sense of fear…if only for a short time each week? What if we re-defined “environmental education”–helping children to learn by seeing and worrying less about memorizing species names and global warming statistics? The computer games designed to teach children about buzz words like “sustainability,” “going green,” and “environmentalism” are exciting and useful in some contexts, but I still think that the best place to begin is with the simple curiosity piqued by the sight of a chrysalis or crawling turtle.

In Paul Gruchow’s collection of short essays Grass Roots: The Universe of Home that connects the anecdotes of his life to the environmental movement, a theory of curiosity-centered environmental education is presented. In his 5-page essay Snails Have Faces, Gruchow describes the delight of nature walks with young children. Describing their youthful expertise, Gruchow says; “I like the exuberance of children on such walks…the way they take small things seriously, their unjaded acceptance of the everyday world as a place still waiting to be discovered…They don’t delegate the work of discovery. They boldly assume it for themselves. When I go walking with children, thinking to show them a bit of the natural world, I usually end up learning something about my own understanding of it” (70). In Gruchow’s brief walk with this group of children, the inherent sense of wonder present in every child is fed and encouraged. Gruchow remembers that just because he is older does not mean that he is wiser. In fact, several paragraphs of his short essay are dedicated to the lament of growing up and “fall[ing] out of love with the world” (73).

In the conclusion of this essay, the reader is left wondering what things could look like if we all still wondered. The kind of wonder I’m thinking of is a wonder with two sides: curiosity and questioning. Gruchow foreshadows the future mindsets children whose hands he holds in the wild of an afternoon walk. Coming up against inevitable conflict, he worries that they will forget how to question–leaving the decisions that run their lives in the hands of authorities and systems and “experts.”

But what if they somehow maintained their childhood wisdom? What if they “rise and assume that boldest of adult responsibilities, the responsibility of asking a question or two without the slightest concern for appearing dumb or difficult?” (74).

For Rachel Carson, an ecologist renowned for her efforts to expose the negative effects of pesticides on the environment and the human population, the child’s “sense of wonder” was perhaps the most important natural resource.  In addition to her legendary 1962 text Silent Spring, Carson penned several lesser known titles focused on the incredible strength of childhood curiousness. In one of these texts, a photograph-filled storybook titled Sense of Wonder, Carson chronicles the outdoor experiences shared with her grand-nephew Roger.

In one poignant scene, Carson acknowledges the present-day barriers to childhood time spent in nature and offers her own set of priorities:

“We have let Roger share our enjoyment of things people ordinarily deny children because they are inconvenient, interfering with bedtime, or involving wet clothing that has to be changed or mud that has to be cleaned off the rug. We have let him join us in the dark living room before the big picture window to watch the full moon riding lower and lower toward the far shore of the bay, setting all the water ablaze with silver flames…I think we have felt that the memory of such a scene, photographed year after year by his child’s mind, would mean more to him in manhood than the sleep he was losing” (22).

In a picturesque nutshell, Carson brings out an often overlooked responsibility of adulthood–giving children the space to create memories that will last a lifetime. In the simple act of staying up late with her nephew once a year, Carson helped to cement a set of expectations Roger would hold about the environment and his place in it for years to come. More than memorization and testing of the carbon cycle, recycling practices, air pollutants, and the names of plant species of deciduous forest ecosystems, this is effective environmental education. Giving space is just as important as building an information base. This space extends beyond the physical realm. When we “give space,” we give freedom. We offer online corners and games as a supplement to natural experience. We integrate the environment into algebra problems and reading assignments. We go for walks and build schools with the outdoor classroom in mind. We offer students choices as they learn common principles and ethics–acknowledging that personal connection is key to future action.

As cited in a recent New York Times article titled Pint-sized Eco Policechildren across the country are learning the benefits of line-dried laundry, energy-saving bulbs, and creative fundraising for endangered species. Teachers are integrating environmental themes into math problems and field trip plans. Parents are proud (but also a little peeved) that their children are so verbal about curbing household waste and investing in cutting edge environmental technologies like solar energy. All of these stories and anecdotes attest to the labeling of the current generation of youth as an “eco-kid” generation.

Awareness about the environmental issues of our world are important, but I worry about the way we frame these problems for the “ecocentric” generation. It all feels focused on consumerism. “Ask your parents to buy tote bags so they don’t use plastic bags for every grocery store trip.” “Replace all of the light bulbs in your house with energy efficient styles.” “Ask your parents to think compost bins and solar panels and flow-efficient bathroom appliances.” Of course, there are also the helpful behavior-centered tips as well: “Turn off the water while brushing your teeth.” “Turn off the light every time you leave a room.”

How often do we ask kids to go outside and just be? 

Last summer, I watched from my cabin’s back porch as my 8-year old cousin entertained herself beneath the shelter of trees. Climbing through a thick blanket of knee-high grass as she arranged stones in a “fairy circle” and designed an “outdoor restaurant,” she was lost in her own world. In past years, I’d been lost there many times myself.

She played for hours unaccompanied. She was safe and within sight, but exploring just the same. As dinnertime approached, she scurried into the house for crackers and cheese to lay on her improvised tree stump table. She invited us for snacks at Sticks and Stones, her “all natural, all organic” restaurant in the woods.

In these few hours of my cousin’s childhood, we see the intersection of classroom environmental education with the education of the “wild”–a delightful hybrid. Her use of “organic” and “natural” jargon shows exposure to environmental curriculum (perhaps through worksheets or games or lessons,) while her unstructured play constructed a unique set of ecological memories.

As we move forward in an age of “environmentalism” and preaching the “eco-friendly,” we might channel this hybrid model of curiosity and curriculum.

Sticks and Stones. My cousin’s restaurant.

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